A harrowing documentary that shakes with visceral urgency, Evgeny Afineevsky’s brilliant Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is an on-the-ground look at the rising in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti. This 2015 motion picture is a tough journey and it doesn’t flinch in presenting the details, with the lens never turning away from the reality of chaos.
Afineevsky uses a veritable fleet of camerapersons to capture the revolt in Maidan in late 2013 to early 2014, covering some 93 days of swelling violence and inspiring unity. The footage is astonishing and the filmmaker lets it speak for itself, choosing to sidestep conventional talking heads for interview portions involving people actually sifting through the mayhem in Independence Square.
Winter on Fire opens by explaining the election of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Protesters took to Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev and assembled peacefully, pushing for the resignation of Yanukovych. Not willing to tolerate the voice of the people, the government sent in the Berkut troops and the butchery began.
The Berkut begins by pushing and shoving and then clubbing people, beating protesters senseless with iron clubs. Afineevsky tracks these events, with a map graphic pointing to key events like the rioting on Hrushevskoho Street and the organization of the protesters into protective units. Barricades are constructed and people are willing to die for the cause of freedom.
The escalation of violence is hard to track, but there’s no mistaking the moment when things take various turns. The revolting Titushky, a brutal band of immoral mercenary agents supportive of Yanukovych, conduct beatings and other brutalities for crumbs of currency. And the Berkut swap rubber bullets for real ones.
All the while, protesters plead with police and Berkut members. They implore the merciless troops to see the humanity in their eyes, to remember when they loved the Ukraine. They can’t understand the hail of bullets, can’t comprehend why they’re being shot at by rooftop snipers. But the Berkut are “following orders,” as is the case when men massacre at the behest of the powerful and the elite.
Winter on Fire explores the unity of the protesters as they appeal to their enemies to find the same virtue in themselves. There are men, women and children of all ages, religions, backgrounds, political persuasions. They insist again and again that politics are of no interest. They want to be free. They want the “convict” out.
And indeed, nothing in Afineevsky’s documentary suggests a divide in the crowd. One doesn’t ask if one is a conservative or liberal when bullets are flying. There are no dull-minded litmus tests in charred trenches. There is no need for parochial speech-making when the causes are immediate, when snow fails to mask the blood on the ground.
Afineevsky doesn’t care much for politics either, it seems, and that’s a good thing because it keeps the focus of Winter on Fire where it belongs. It weaves the story of the people, bounding from subject to subject and story to story. The images follow and are hard to watch, with the violence vivid, frequent, evil.
It is remarkable to watch the Berkut carry out their nasty business through Afineevsky’s eyes. They bunch around collapsed men and women, pounding and bashing without mercy. Their targets clearly exhibit no threat to any “police forces.” And yet they are beaten, with innumerable uniformed thugs arriving to get their own shots in.
Editor Will Znidaric is tasked with piling together the footage of some 28 camerapersons and that’s no easy task. There’s a lot of chaos in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a lot of madness as members of the Red Cross are fired on and medical clinics are destroyed. Znidaric and David Fincher collaborator Angus Wall, who serves as producer here, handle the business of making Winter on Fire matter in aesthetic terms.
There is some good news, but there is more bad news. Yanukovych flees the scene in his helicopter. The Berkut are dissolved. The protesters have won for the time being, even though there are many dead and many still missing. What looms is chilling, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea touched on in the postscript. But one expects the Ukrainians to continue to fight no matter how cold the winter.